Family beating odds with Simmons Center Market
CAMBRIDGE, Md. — The statistics are staggering.
According to the Family Business Alliance, about 30 percent of all family-owned businesses survive into the second generation.
Twelve percent make it into the third generation, with 3 percent of all family businesses operating at the fourth-generation level and beyond.
Small, family-owned grocery stores may even have a longer shot at surviving that long, but the family behind Simmons Center Market in Dorchester County have found a way into that last group, lasting more than 80 years.
It started with James Simmons, who cashed in a $52 life insurance policy at age 24 to get the business off the ground in 1937.
“When he opened there were 35 other mom-and-pop grocery operations in town,” said Ricky Travers, James’ grandson, who now owns the Race Street store with wife Rosi. “So competition was tight. You had to do different things.”
James and his wife Libby did lots of different things to draw in customers. On one of the stores’ birthdays, they showcased the “Worlds’ Largest Cake,” big enough for 2,500 servings.
In another promotion, store staff glued paper plates together to make little flying saucers — about 2,500 of them — containing special coupons and prizes and dropped them from an airplane into town.
“He was very forward-looking as far as being able to have innovative ideas,” Travers said.
The biggest move that set Simmons apart from the other stores was in 1945, changing from counter service where the shopkeeper or store employee gathered up all the items for the customer to self service, with customers pushing carts and picking out their own items.
“I think he just saw that that was the next thing that was coming to the grocery market,” said Travers, noting his grandfather was the first on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to make the switch. “He was about two and a half years ahead of any other store in town moving to self service.”
Travers said the switch helped the business grow, even amid the learning curve early on of customers using shopping carts.
Over the years, Simmons expanded the store in different ways.
First it absorbed the confectionary shop next door, about doubling its size.
A second floor was constructed in 1950, first as a lunch counter before shifting to a depot for wholesale sales. A greenhouse was added in the 1960s to expand flower sales.
Travers said the store now is about five times the size as when it first opened. But that’s still tiny compared to the size of what modern day grocery supercenters have become.
With the advent of cellophane, the butcher shop shifted to self service as well, with cuts of meat prepared in advance.
Through it’s changes, the butcher shop has been a key component of the store and Travers said it’s reverted back to it’s full service roots.
“I’ve seen the trend now go totally back to a lot of people want to talk to the butcher about meat cutting. They want to talk about where it came from, how it was treated, what it eat. That sort of thing,” Travers said. “It’s really evolved back to what it was years and years and years ago.”
Meat is ground daily in the store, sometimes more frequently, just one of the shop’s aspects that Travers uses to set it apart from other options.
“I’ve got some customers I’ll see twice a day, I’ve got some I’ll see once a week and some I’ll see once a month,” Travers said. “It just depends. We’ve got a wide range of diverse customers.”
Randy Travers, one of Ricky’s four sons, took over the meat cutting duties at the store five years ago and they’ve introduced many new products, including beef jerky and bratwurst.
“It’s fun, especially finding new things to do, especially the jerky,” Randy, 27, said, adding in the first month they had jerky for sale, they sold 600 pounds.
Two of Ricky’s sons work in the business full-time, along with Ricky’s sister, Lollie Walters, and about a dozen other family members at different times during the year.
“I was always interested in the store coming up,” Randy said. “It’s cool to have a business in the family for so long.”
Ricky’s mother Joan grew up in the business, been involved in all its facets and changes and, turning 83 this year, still comes in, three days a week.
“I’m just a fill-in,” she said with a smile. “I’ve done my duty. It just makes me feel good that Ricky and the boys have taken it over and carried it on from my mom and dad.”
Now, Travers said, there may be less stores in the area but they still have to compete in the landscape of online retailers and larger grocery chains.
“An operation like this is not going to beat a chain store’s pricing. We don’t have the buying volume. So what we have to do is, you have to be a better quality.
“You have to be a better service. You have to do whatever the big chains are not doing.”
For Travers and family, that’s meant sticking to local producers and domestic manufacturers as much as possible to stock the shelves and refrigerated cases. He said they work with about 15 farmers on Delmarva and nearby states to supply produce, dairy products and some of its meat to customers.
With a lot more customers interested in the origins of the food they’re buying, Travers said it’s helped them establish a niche.
“That has been a plus for stores like us because we know the background,” he said.” We know we can tell you all about it. We can let you know that this is what the story is on that.”
Ricky and the family treasures the history of the store.
After its 50th anniversary, old cash registers, wooden crates, local packing house cans and other artifacts of years ago remained displayed along the store walls above the product shelving to preserve some of the past.
Ricky remains forward-looking too, and has concerns about the future, not only for his store, but brick-and-morter retail in general as the boom in online shopping has contributed to many businesses, from small operations to large chains, into closing doors.
“I don’t care whether you’re selling toys or selling shoes or selling clothes, it’s a scary thing out there now,” he said. “I think the Internet has it’s place but I can tell you that sooner or later, if they don’t support the local stores, they’re going to miss them when they’re gone.”
But while chipping in at the butcher shop, Joan is quick to point out that although they’re young now, she has nine great grandchildren.
“That means we’ve got another generation coming,” she said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
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